'Toy Story 4' Director And Producers Were As Skeptical As Everyone Else About Another Sequel [Interview]

When I sat down with Toy Story 4 director Josh Cooley and producers Mark Nielsen and Jonas Rivera following an early screening of the latest Pixar film, I had to get something off my chest. Like many film fans, this movie didn't seem necessary. The ending of the third film was too poignant, too perfect. Why ruin that? The answer, I learned, was because there was more to say and more story to tell, and I didn't realize how necessary Toy Story 4 was until they pulled off this miracle. Although their relief that I loved the film was obvious, they also made it clear that, yep, they too initially wondered if they were making a big mistake by trying to follow-up part three.

In our interview, Cooley, Nielsen and Rivera discuss the sequel's journey to the big screen, how they landed Keanu Reeves for a key role, and whether this is truly the end of the line for Woody and the gang.

Going into this, I'll admit I was skeptical because Toy Story 3 had such a great conclusion. So watching this one, I thought we'd reached the ending, but there was more to say. I want to know about the journey to find that story. How did you get there?

Cooley: We felt the exact same way. Even the idea of Toy Story 4, five years ago, we were like, 'Wait, it's over, though. Why are we even talking about this?' But we started talking about, 'Well, what would be next, after 3's amazing ending?' It definitely intrigued me: Woody's in a new room with a new kid and new toys. This is something we've never seen before. Looking at our own kids, every kid plays differently, so there's no way he's going to be the favorite toy. If he was, if I was watching the movie, I'd say, 'This is stupid, they're just redoing what they've done before.' But having him not be the favorite toy was so fascinating and interesting. For me it was like, 'Oh man, there's something here that feels really cool.' Then the idea of having Bo Peep return as well: where's she been? What's been going on with her? It's gotta be different. There were some really great questions that made me sit forward.

Rivera: The other thing we talked a lot about is, as great of an ending as that is – and we're all really proud of it – it was the ending of Andy and that thread. That's what led to, 'What would Woody do? He did everything right. Is that the end?' All of a sudden that started to feel like it wasn't the end to us. Andrew Stanton was the one who was like, 'No, I never thought that was the ending.' He saw it the complete other way. And Andrew's so smart, we were like, 'Really? Tell us more.' He kind of pitched it as like, 'No, that's the beginning. That's the beginning of this whole new chapter that could be bigger, deeper, scarier' – all types of possibilities. We just started sitting forward and going, 'Well, that is crazy. What if we turn that upside down?'

Cooley: But we were so conscious of how we feel about these characters and these movies, and we were like, 'We're not going to do this unless we're going to do it right.' We felt that way every single day, and not just us, the crew as well.

Neilsen: It was a cool crew, too, because it was made up of some folks who worked all the way from the beginning, on the original film.

Cooley: Like Jonas.

Neilsen: And then people that would show us pictures of themselves dressed up like Buzz Lightyear when they were 3, who are animating now.

Rivera: The first movie they ever saw!

Neilsen: So it was really a special mix where it meant different things to different people, but they were all so excited. Like, the animator that first got to open that shot up and animate Woody, this character from their childhood, it really was special to a lot of people. We knew we were dealing with the crown jewels of the studio.

[This next exchange contains minor spoilers.]

I think what separates the Pixar movies from so many other animation studios is that I'm looking at this going, 'It's characters I love and a good story, but there's an emotional core here that is affecting me in a way I wasn't expecting.' This film deals with self-care and learning that it's important to love yourself and take care of yourself as opposed to only being focused on other people and making sure they're happy. Is that something you had in mind from the outset? 

Cooley: I love that you're asking that question. Yeah, definitely. We didn't sit down in the story room and say, 'This is what we're going to make: a story about self-care, and screw other people, take care of yourself!' But when you look at the bigger picture of Woody, we were like, 'OK, if 3 ends with Andy, 4 is continuing Woody's story, but what is the end of his arc?' Throughout all these films, he's been there for his kid and in that, he's been there for all the other toys as well. He'll jump out a window for them. But he's never really done anything that's just for him that isn't based on fear or anxiety or anything like that. This felt like an opportunity to show real growth in the character. This is the only place we can take this character. If we're going to go somewhere, what else can you do? He's pretty great, but we have to show that there's something bigger out there for him and that he can do something for himself. Also, his relationship with Buzz, Buzz had to be the one who kind of gave him permission and said, 'You need to do this. This is for you.'

Neilsen: What's cool about it too is that it's not just selfish for him. He is making this choice, but it's also to get other toys with kids. So it serves his own purpose, but it kind of opens up the world and makes him able to impact the world in a greater way than he could in one bedroom.

I found it incredibly moving, for it to say it's okay to walk a path that makes you happy as opposed to serving somebody else. It really hit me.

Rivera: That's awesome. I'm really proud of that moment where Buzz kind of nods [at Woody]. Their relationship is so sophisticated at this point, they can kind of talk without speaking and give each other permission a little bit. We were trying to find ways to amplify that.

[Spoilers over]

I love all the new characters. I saw all the posters for Duke Caboom, Bunny and Ducky, and I'm going, 'Am I going to love them as instantly as I loved Rex and Hamm?' And the answer is yes.

All: Aww, that's great.

They actually have a lot of screen time. They're in the movie as much, if not more, than much of the old cast, so I want to know about the balancing of new versus old and how you introduce these characters and make sure we love them instantly?

Rivera: It's just balance. There are versions of the movie where you go, 'Maybe it's too much,' or 'Maybe it's not enough.' I give Axel Geddes, our editor, a lot of credit for that continued balancing act. We looked at it a million times and had to constantly adjust it.

Cooley: It would. It'd be like, 'There's too much of the old characters, where are the old ones? Well, now there's too much of the old ones.'

Neilsen: There was a time where we didn't have enough Buzz. Buzz is so important to this movie, and his decision at the end is massive and you have to have emotional weight. But we didn't have him in a lot of moments. So we surgically went back in and made sure to give Buzz his due and make sure Woody and Buzz are connecting. That's where the 'inner voice' thing came up, it really sort of sprung out of that need to have Buzz be more integral to the story.

Cooley: We had versions of Buzz where, he didn't go Spanish mode or back to being a space ranger, but we had a version where his batteries were draining the whole time, and he was [speaking] almost in slow motion. But we realized if he starts getting any kind of mental incapacity, he won't be able to see Woody with Bo and understand their relationship for that ending to work. He has to be in his right mind in order to say, 'Yes, you can leave,' so a week later, he doesn't go, 'Wait, what? I said what?!' (laughs)

I think Duke Caboom is so amazing, and his voice work is just – I didn't know Keanu Reeves had that in him. So what is it like to have Keanu Reeves record a Pixar character?

Rivera: It's the greatest honor ever.

Neilsen: It's incredible.

Cooley: Before he even agreed to do the role, he was the first person where we were like, 'Do you think Keanu would do this? Who knows?'

Neilsen: We only looked at Canadian actors for the role.

Cooley: So we said, 'Would you be interested?' and he said, 'I want to meet you guys,' so he came to Pixar and we had lunch. We pitched him the movie and we were talking about the character, and he'd say, like, [does Keanu impression] 'What does he sound like?' He'd ask these really deep questions, too: 'Is he made at Rejean, is he mad at the world?' Deep questions that I wasn't really prepared for. I just thought, 'Oh, it's a side character. It's a gag.' But we were really getting into it, to the point where – no joke – he's a toy that poses, so he's [making vocal pose sound effects] in our atrium, doing that, and he stood up on table and started doing poses and people were like, 'Is that Keanu Reeves?' When he started doing that, I'm crying with laughter, and I thought, 'That's Duke Caboom.' I credit him not just doing the voice, but the character –

Rivera: Just how serious he took it. Duke is serious.

Neilsen: And the fact that he's got a motorcycle, we didn't realize how important motorcycles are to Keanu. He owns his own motorcycle company. That was all new to us. But the more we talked about it, he got really into even the design of the Caboom bike.

Rivera: We'd say, 'What if we designed it like one of yours?' and he'd be like, 'No, no, it's the Caboom cycle.'

Cooley: He's like, 'Don't touch the Caboom cycle.'

Rivera: He's true to the '70s. Real thoughtful.

I'm watching this and thinking, if they decide to call it here, I feel satisfied. But at what point does the conversations start where you say, 'Maybe there is a fifth one,' or have those happened yet?

Cooley: It has not happened, and I one hundred percent agree with you. I would be totally happy if this was the end.

Neilsen: We've been totally focused on four, so we haven't really thought beyond that. I mean, we never know what the future holds. We didn't think there was going to be a four. We didn't think there was going to be a three after we finished two!

Rivera: We felt like Woody needed to have a completion to his arc, and we've done that. We feel satisfied with it.